A new (old) perspective on the church and culture
By Michael Mooney
"I am made all things to all men, so that I might by all means save some" (1Co 9:22 MKJV).
This is a powerful statement from the Apostle Paul, yet also the source of quite a bit of confusion. In this passage he says that he became a servant to all, a Jew to Jews, under the law for keepers of Moses’ law, outside the Moses’ law for those who do not observe it (under the Law to Christ), weak to the weak, and all things to all men.
What he did not mean:
Sometimes it is easier to find the meaning of a passage by ruling out what that did not mean. It seems reasonable to assume that Paul was not saying that he was a chameleon who went about pretending to be like every person he encountered. Most people have met others like this and it is usually jugged as a frustrating and insincere encounter. Many times people who do act this way, do so because the really don’t know who they are as individuals. Contrarily, Paul did not struggle with his identity.
Neither did Paul imply that Christians act like the world. He made it clear that he was free, but that he always kept the law of Christ in his encounters.
What he must have intended:
Paul must have been speaking of culture and personal preferences. After all, the “law of Christ” makes no solid connection with culture being a matter of holiness. Lets now consider culture. Culture is an interesting word. Its mere utterance is sure to fill the imagination with all sorts of images, and none of them are likely to be the same from person to person. For this reason defining it proves to be quite problematic. Kroeber and Kluckhohn once collected more than 160 definitions for this term. Their findings show extensive perspectives ranging from heritage to protocols, and goods to behaviors. These elements are more specifically visible in ideals, ethnicity, thought patterns, ethical norms, social environments, religiosity, and ambitions. Therefore, culture has a general definition that alludes to various elements of societies, yet there seems to be no concrete thing that can be identified as culture (Cohen, 2009). Rather, it seems that culture is indeed an abstract concept consisting of the manifestation of harmonized ideological elements. These characteristics are what unites and or separates groups of people. In Paul’s time such separations were that of races, tribes, and tongues. In our modern times we now recognize these categories as societies. Societies are made up of cultures, even sub-cultures within organizations (such as churches).
(Stay with me, we are going somewhere with this)
Communicating with and within cultures:
Globally speaking, there are two major communicatory types of cultures: high-context and low-context. Robbins and Judge (2009) define high-context cultures as relying “heavily on nonverbal and subtle situational cues in communicating with others” and low-context cultures as relying “essentially on words to convey meaning” (p. 374). High-context cultures are indigenous of communities with long-term relations that have developed customs with regard to everyday activities. People in these cultures are very close to one another within their villages and towns. Many of the hold very traditional values like respecting the elderly, etc. In contrast, low-contxt cultures tend to be legalistic, with more short term relations that rely heavily upon verbal exchange (Satterlee & Robinson, 2008, p. 44-45). Generally speaking, America is a low-context culture that prefers verbal communication. Businesses are operated under written contracts, and attorneys are employed to uphold them. Clearly, verbal communication is paramount to the American audience; whereas body language may say more in a Japanese culture.
Cultures within organizations (like churches) hold close connections to their structures. Although cultures are usually unique to the organizations where they exist, there is a common similarity in that they represent expectations in organizational behavior, protocols, and goals. Cultures influence attitudes, ethics, quality, and performance; all of which ultimately determines turnover (parishioners leaving their churches). Therefore, culture is essential to parishioners roles and their motivation toward organizational goals. (Mahal, 2009).
What is the point in all of this?
All people fit into some category of culture. Example secular categories are food and music preferences, etc., religious categories are Buddhist, Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, etc. Paul became all things to all people in cultural categories that did not violate the law of Christ. Buddhism would probably be a violation. However, denominational preferences, music preferences (jazz, classical, etc.), food preferences, style preferences, etc. are not likely to be such violations. Paul was emphasizing that cultural “preferences” separate humanity, but he was willing to put his preferences aside so that he might win people to Christ. Did he become a fan of these new cultural specifics (like rap music), who knows, but if he did not, he also did not let the people of that culture know his disregard for their customs.
In fact in Acts 17, when preaching on Mars Hill Paul quoted a poem written to Zeus as a means to connect with his audience:
“For in Him we live and move and have our being, as also certain of your own poets have said, For we are also His offspring” (Act 17:28 MKJV).
“Zeus…It is right for mortals to call upon you, since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image…” – Cleanthes (331-232 B.C.) a disciple of Zeno the Stoic.
“They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one— The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever, For in thee we live and move and have our being.” – Epimenides’ poem to Zeus.
There is a powerful lesson to be learned here. Paul used the poetry of the culture around him to communicate the truth of the Gospel to the lost. Even more interesting is that we are reading a poem to Zeus as now being the “inspired word of God” because Paul used it in his sermon.
The point here is this:
When God calls his church to be separate from the world, it does not seem that this has much to do with “culture”, BUT everything to do with “love, joy, peace, etc. –the fruit of the Spirit vs. the flesh (complete list in Galatians 5). Unfortunately Christians have a tendency to attribute our cultural “tastes” and “preferences” to God. The things we like, we seem to think that God also likes, and the things that we abhor, well they must also be an abomination to Him.
Looking back at church history, there seems to be a pattern from generation to generation of preaching against, or banning certain activities, clothing styles, subjects, substances etc. Strangely enough what was evil to one church generation later becomes acceptable to the next. For example, not too many years ago it was evil or “worldly” for women to wear pants, or work outside the home, and for men to wear earrings and or long hair. Yet today for the most part (with the exception of some small church sects) this is how people dress for church! Did somehow God’s standard of holiness change? Of course not! If we will be honest with ourselves and everyone else, we as Christians have a tendency to make God the object of reason to justify our excuses for our own personal preferences. If we do not like a particular music style, haircut, way of thinking, or popular trend, it becomes all too tempting to declare that God does not approve of it. After all, if we can demonstrate that God does not approve of it, then we have a reason to persuade everyone else to our particular preferences.
It was not so with Paul! He used the culture around him to bring people to Christ. Paul said "I am made all things to all men, so that I might by all means save some" (1Co 9:22 MKJV). What if churches actually did this? What if churches actually stopped telling people to come be like their predominate cultural preferences (within their organizations), and instead began embracing the cultures where their churches are planted? Church growth is something that would likely follow such an attitude. Paul did this and he also said, “Therefore I beseech you, be imitators of me (1Co 4:16 MKJV).
All rights reserved. Blog authored by Michael Mooney for:
Cohen, A. (2009, April). Many forms of culture. American Psychologist, 64(3), 194-204.
Mahal, P. (2009). Organizational Culture and Organizational Climate as a Determinant of
Motivation. IUP Journal of Management Research, 8(10), 38-51. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.
Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2009). Organizational behavior. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.